This year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament will be marred by the ostensibly rampant “corruption” in the powerhouse basketball programs being investigated by the FBI. The biggest headlines this year were from the University of Arizona and the University of Louisville. Sean Miller, Arizona’s head coach, was caught on a wiretapped phone call discussing paying star freshman Deondre Ayton $100,000 to come play at Arizona (which would be a blatant violation of the NCAA rules). Arizona’s assistant coach, Emmanuel Richardson, was arrested and is facing up to sixty years in prison for the charge of using $20,000 to sway recruits to play for Arizona which the FBI is calling “bribery”. This year, University of Louisville was stripped of their 2013 championship victory because of allegations that escorts were being provided to players by the team administrators.
The conversations surrounding these charges and allegations is one of moral opprobrium—these backhanded deals have always existed in college basketball, and are now being rightfully punished. But this begs the question of why this is even happening. Why paying players and providing them services in return for their labor is even considered corruption. To understand why the NCAA has such harsh rules regarding player compensation and why they would want the FBI to be involved, you have to understand what an enormous financial enterprise men’s basketball is, particularly the NCAA tournament.
In 2006, the NCAA signed a 10.8 billion dollar T.V. deal with CBS, and it is estimated that the NCAA earns at least 900 million dollars in revenue every year. Schools make about 1.5 million just for making the tournament, and about 8.3 million if they make the Final Four. The top coaches have million dollar contracts, the schools get free advertising, and students are attracted to basketball powerhouses. So here is this bulging cash cow everybody is milking— except the people who are actually doing the work: the student athletes.
For as long as college sports have been around, the notion of student athletes getting paid has been considered just as ridiculous. And until maybe thirty years ago, the rules against salaried athletes may have been justified: they were primarily students, they were getting scholarships to play, and there wasn’t any massive financial enterprise depending on their labor. But the idea of not paying athletes in a multi-million dollar industry seems laughably ridiculous. Without the athletes, the structure of college basketball would fall apart and no one would make any money; their talent is the foundation for the administrators’ and network producers’ fat salaries. But they don’t even get a cut? How is that possible? That would be like Google deciding not to pay any of their engineers on the justification that being at Google is such a valuable learning experience that they owe their labor and should be thankful they get a chance to provide it. But this same argument is prevalent in college sports: the athletes get scholarships, so they should just shut up and be thankful.
Though, let’s consider: this “shut up and be thankful attitude” is widespread throughout our entire economic system. Individual labor isn’t valued; people should be thankful they get a chance to work and jump joyously for whatever meager gains they garner. For example, the notion that workers in low-skill professions would demand a higher minimum wage is commonly considered absurd. Somebody like that is replaceable, just a cog in a machine whose functioning they cannot comprehend, and they should be happy a benevolent corporation is giving them a chance to make a living. College basketball (and football) is this writ large. These athletes are sacrificing an immense amount of time and effort to make money for somebody else; and the lucky few might get a shot at the NBA. But most don’t make the NBA, and there is of course that sad situation of the superstar who gets injured and never gets a chance to play, and then everything he has worked his entire life towards has been a wasted effort. So you get a situation wherein the athletes are relegated to the status of replaceability, and even the superstars are made to think that another talent could easily take their place. They are told they should be happy they even get an opportunity.
This problematic system makes it so that whoever offers players an opportunity to profit is at a huge advantage and can get the top recruits. The structure is not only conducive to corruption (because the ‘corrupt’ teams get the better recruits), the competition makes it almost necessary to succeed. But they can’t make the “corruption” a legal part of recruiting because then that gives the players the leeway they need to demand just payment, and then the NCAA can’t afford to run their business model. Therefore, they have to prosecute paying college athletes as if it’s a serious crime, and you get situations where school officials can go to jail for 60 years for paying a player who is worth millions to their school and twenty grand to the league.
The NCAA is a beautiful machine, the perfect capitalistic enterprise. They don’t have to pay for labor or materials; their profit margin is galactic. And the government is just doing what its job has been since the mid-20th century: prosecuting whoever gets in the way of corporate domination.